Castillo del Cerro
One of the several grand mansions that the Dominican Republic
's dictator of 31 years, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo
Molina (see under Dominican history
!) had built for himself. This one, built in 1940 in his hometown of San Cristobal, he didn't like, however, and so never actually lived in it (unlike the Casa Caoba
). Today the Castle on a Hill (as the name translates) is home to the National Penitentiary School and you can visit it. It's very bizarre indeed.
What there is to see: Even from the outside, this edifice has an almost brooding presence. The architecture has been described in my guidebook as “slightly medieval-looking” but I can't really agree with that. Especially the large curved glass-brick front and the bull-eye windows look much more like Bauhaus style than anything older. It is certainly modern in design. On the outside that is.
This changes drastically once you're inside. The stucco ceilings in the staircase are a good indication of what was to come: overloaded, kitsch-laden decorations fit for a decadent dictator with no real taste in art (when has that ever happened anyway that a brutal dictator had a genuine feeling for fine arts?).
Upstairs we saw what used to be a dining room, now a lecture room – like so many in this professional school now. In the corners you could spot Trujillo's initials worked into the ceiling stucco work (i.e. an R, L, T and M). The man was clearly full of himself.
Another room was the “Asian room” and it had four stucco Buddhas on the ceiling around the central chandelier hook. I found that quite ironic – such a symbol of peace to hang above one of the least peace-loving autocrats the Americas have ever seen! (See history
Other stucco kitsch involved a favourite of Trujillo's: skimpily dressed or naked women. Given his reputation as a serial rapist of under-age girls, this lent an especially creepy edge to all the general tastelessness.
One room had a small photo exhibition in it, on the theme of prisons and prison inmates – again, not a huge surprise given the nature of the school now housed in the building. Some of the images were really well shot!
A side room we were next led into was a kind of lounge, and this room still had original wooden furniture in it as well as an ancient radio. On the back wall was a huge mural depicting rural Dominican scenes.
The largest room was one that followed the curve of the front facade and had particularly lavish stucco ceiling decorations. It was filled with yet more furniture – mostly (again somewhat ironically) beds.
In the colonnades that wrapped around this room was a small exhibition of text-and-photo panels on Trujillo's regime and the resistance against it. The Mirabal sisters
naturally featured in this, as did the 14 June movement and the eventual assassination of the dictator – see under Dominican history
! Many images were already familiar to me from the Resistance Museum
in the capital. An exception was a photo of Trujillo's bullet-ridden Chevy. Clearly a different model to the car in the history museum in Santo Domingo
Another section had very gruesome images of torture victims – and in one corner there was even another one of those electric chairs (also already familiar from the LA40 torture chamber reconstruction at the Resistance Museum
Eventually we came out at the top and stepped onto the large roof terrace. Here the five-star theme noticeable everywhere became especially prominent, it features above the round windows and in every part of the railing around the terrace. Five stars, of course, is to symbolize the “generalissimo” status of Trujillo.
The views from up here were quite good, you could see most of San Cristobal – and I guess most of San Cristobal's citizens could see Trujillo's mansion towering above them, which was probably more the point. You could even see as far as Santo Domingo and the pollution haze from its outer industrial zones … Looking straight down at the far end of the roof terrace you also got a fine view of the well-tended gardens below.
Back downstairs we also had a look at a scale model of the La Isleta correctional facility in Moca, and were also allowed a glimpse into the library. Amongst the rather sparsely filled shelves were also a few English titles, namely brochures outlining study courses in Great Britain
. I was pleased to see that on one shelf there were plenty of copies of the Declaration of Human Rights. Important in a school for future prison guards in a country with a history
as dark as the Dom Rep
At the end we were seen off by the head of the school who also handed over a brochure about the school to us as a free souvenir!
All in all, it was a pretty weird experience, but very interesting and somewhat disturbing. Absolutely recommended.
on a hill overlooking San Cristobal, about a mile (1.6 km) south-west of the hub of the town at Parque Central, itself some 20 miles (30 km) west of the Dom Rep
's capital Santo Domingo
Access and costs: a bit out of the centre of San Cristobal – and well off the usual Dom Rep tourist trails; free.
As San Cristobal is possibly the least touristy town in the Dominican Republic
, you will likely come from somewhere else specifically for this sight, and most likely from Santo Domingo
. You could in theory make your way here independently, but it would mean a bit of an effort, and bit of an adventure too. There are guaguas (minibus services) from the capital, but to use them you'd have to have at least some Spanish. A more convenient but expensive alternative would be to hire a taxi for the journey.
When I went there it was part of a longer all-day tailored tour from Santo Domingo
– see under access details
) which also took in Casa Caoba
and the Pomier Caves
. So we arrived by car. The complex is gated and you first have to get past the security guard at the barrier. A bit of Spanish is useful here too (I was glad I had my guide to do the talking). We were instructed to park – not anywhere we liked (such as in the shade) but clear directions to a specific space (in the sun) were given. This is a place where authoritarian behaviour is taught, so it's not surprising, nor would you argue.
If you come to San Cristobal independently, you will have to make your way from the centre to this hilltop location. It is just over a mile (1.6 km) but uphill, so you may not want to walk it (anyway). In that case a motorbike taxi is probably your best bet.
Once inside, we were assigned a kind-of guide (one of the trainee prison guards, that is) – who even spoke a little English, but mostly he just escorted us around without much commentary.
NOTE that this is quite a formal institution (everybody inside wears uniforms!) and hence visitors are required to turn up in halfway decent attire, i.e. no shorts or sandals or flimsy tops for women. But it doesn't go as far as compulsory ties or white shirts …
Time required: our tour lasted ca. 45 mins in total.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Just outside San Cristobal to the north there is another Trujillo mansion, Casa Caoba
, which is now abandoned and in ruins. But this is more poignant because this used to be Trujillo's favourite – and it was here that he committed a large number of his sexual crimes (i.e. raping young girls in their thousands). It's much more chilling because of that and the derelict state it is in, but almost nothing of the lavish interiors survive – in contrast to the Castillo del Cerro.
Carry on a bit further from Casa Caoba and you get to the amazing Pomier Caves
, with their Taino cave paintings and creepy bat colony!
The most obvious combination, however, and base for any such excursions will be Santo Domingo
, so exploring that city's dark attractions is a must.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
San Cristobal is anything but touristy, though a walk round the street markets can be a cool activity. But you're probably best off heading straight back to Santo Domingo
or deeper into the Dominican Republic
- Castillo de Cerro 01 - somewhat Bauhaus-like
- Castillo de Cerro 02 - inside
- Castillo de Cerro 03 - lavish interior design
- Castillo de Cerro 04 - ceiling kitsch
- Castillo de Cerro 05 - even Buddhas
- Castillo de Cerro 06 - interiors
- Castillo de Cerro 07 - furniture
- Castillo de Cerro 08 - electric chair
- Castillo de Cerro 09 - library
- Castillo de Cerro 10 - important book to have in a penitentiary school
- Castillo de Cerro 11 - on the roof terrace
- Castillo de Cerro 12 - looking down
- Castillo de Cerro 13 - everything is five stars here
- Castillo de Cerro 14 - garden
- Castillo de Cerro 15 - overlooking San Cristobal
- Castillo de Cerro 16 - San Cristobal town centre
- Castillo de Cerro 17 - San Cristobal street market